MV Blog


The art of the diorama

by Alice Gibbons
Publish date
7 September 2012
Comments (3)

Alice interned with MV for her Master of Art Curatorship at University of Melbourne. She researched science and medical themes for the upcoming Think Ahead exhibition at Scienceworks.

kangaroo diorama Eastern Grey Kangaroo diorama. Scenery painted by George Browning.
Source: Museum Victoria

At the height of their popularity in the 20th century, museum dioramas could be found in almost every natural history museum, both locally and internationally, and in a variety of shapes, forms and genres. In Australia, the former National Museum of Victoria, the Australian Museum in Sydney, the Australian War Memorial and the South Australian Museum were all eager to adopt this method of display from the 1920s onwards and allocated significant funds and energy into producing many fine examples of this art form.

Museum dioramas are three-dimensional life sized or scaled down models usually depicting a natural scene or historical event for the purpose of education and entertainment. In most cases they employ a painted backdrop combined with realistic foreground to create a trompe l'oeil effect, evoking the illusion of a real scene.

three women working Young volunteers preparing leaves for a diorama, circa 1940s.
Source: Museum Victoria

At its former location in Swanston St, Museum Victoria had an impressive array of dioramas. The earliest in the collection, initially built for the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, illustrated scenes of Australian Aboriginal life. Another display, The Victorian Fauna Series, was first prepared in the 1940s and was housed in the alcoves of McCoy Hall. It remained on display until the closing of the Swanston Street museum in 1998. Other examples, such as the Lion diorama built in 1928, and the Polar Bear diorama built in 1930 were dismantled in 1973 and 1984 respectively.

Polar bear diorama Polar Bear diorama built in 1930 at the National Museum.
Source: Museum Victoria

Lion specimens in diorama African Lion diorama built in 1928. Preparation by Charles Brazenor and scene painting by Louis McCubbin.The lion on the left is now on display in the Wild exhibition.
Source: Museum Victoria

Today some of the remnants of these displays persist, but are relegated to the collection stores of the museum, where intact scenes are shelved amid an array of taxidermied animal specimens. Hidden in their custom-built boxes, these smaller examples of habitat dioramas were at one stage earmarked for display but were replaced with more contemporary purpose-built exhibits, such as those found within the Wild: Amazing Animals in a Changing World and 600 Million Years: Victoria evolves exhibitions. Unlike their static historical counterparts, these new examples such as the Mallee Fowl diorama and Qantassaurus diorama employ interactive components, ranging from peep-holes to animatronics, to bring this historical method of display into the 21st century.

children in museum Visiting children enthralled by the animatronic Qantassaurus diorama in Melbourne Museum's 600 Million Years: Victoria evolves exhibition.
Image: Dianna Snape
Source: Museum Victoria

To my knowledge, there are only a few examples of intact historical habitat dioramas currently on display in Australia. The oldest example is found within the skeleton gallery of the Australian Museum in Sydney; almost completely obscured, the Lord Howe Island diorama from 1921 can only be seen through several narrow peep-holes. The South Australian Museum has also retained one of its historical bird dioramas. Built in 1939, the Cormorant Rookery remains in its site-specific location to be included within the museum's recent South Australian Biodiversity Gallery redevelopment.


'The McCoy Hall Victorian Fauna Dioramas: at least some things stay the same' by John Kean. From A Museum for the People by Carolyn Rasmussen.

Agatha's cold cream

by Kate C
Publish date
4 September 2012
Comments (2)

Legendary crime writer Dame Agatha Christie may have sold more novels than any other writer, but did you know she was also a pioneer in object conservation? Working in Iraq alongside her archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan, Christie used improvised tools and cold cream originally intended for her own face to clean thousands of excavated fragments known as the Nimrud Ivories.

lid of cold cream container Lid of a 19th century ceramic cold cream container excavated from Little Lon, Melbourne and part of MV's Little Lon Collection.
Source: Museum Victoria

Cold cream is a mixture (or emulsion) of water in oil used to clean and soften the skin. Its name originates from the cold feeling left when the water component draws evaporates from the skin. But why was it useful for ivory? And is it still used for that purpose today? Senior Conservator Helen Privett helps to preserve objects in Museum Victoria's collection and she was happy to talk about contemporary tricks of the trade.

'We wouldn't use cold cream, but we use moisturising agents like it, such as polyethylene glycol which you find in modern cosmetics," says Helen. "The reason why you might use something like that is that you don't want to get ivory too wet, because it absorbs water and then expands to different degrees in different directions... a kind of multidimensional swelling which can cause cracking and distortion."

"We've got data loggers in the Mesopotamia showcases to monitor the environmental conditions. The showcases containing ivories are all set to about 55 per cent relative humidity to make sure they don't get too wet or too dry."

Approaches to artefact conservation have changed profoundly since Agatha Christie's time, and not just in terms of technological advances. There have been philosophical changes too: now the focus is on the long-term stability of the objects, which sometimes means a hands-off approach. Importantly, conservators don't necessarily clean artefacts any more.

"One issue in archaeological conservation is that you're removing objects from where they've sat for thousands of years," explains Helen. "Sometimes they're actually quite stable in that environment, and it's better to leave something buried than to bring it out of the ground." In the case of shipwrecks and certain archaeological sites, reburial of artefacts is becoming an accepted technique for preservation.

When cleaning or other treatment is required, conservators turn to a variety of materials. Many are chemicals that you might have in your own home, such as methyl cellulose (found in toothpastes, artificial tears and moisturisers) which is a useful adhesive and a poultice base, and citric acid (found in soft drinks) which is a gentle way to remove corrosion.

Woman with bucket Senior Conservator Helen Privett holding a giant bucket of citric acid in the MV Conservation Lab.
Source: Museum Victoria

Helen describes the global community of conservators as open and willing to exchange information about new conservation techniques and materials through articles and online forums. "There are some adhesives, for example, that are made specifically for the conservation industry but because it's such a small field we tend to use materials from other industries. We do a lot of testing ourselves, particularly for new environmentally sustainable display materials."

Becoming a conservator usually requires a sound background in art history combined with broad training in materials science and applied chemistry. Then there's the tricky decision about which sub-specialty to enter; conservators can specialise in particular fields such as paintings, paper, or objects. For Helen, it was a single moment that led her to object conservation – seeing the Portland Vase in the British Museum. "It's very deep, intense translucent blue glass with a carved white relief. They've never been able to replicate how it was made. This amazing object was smashed into hundreds of pieces and has been put back together numerous times, so it's got this extraordinary history of manufacture, collection and conservation. It's my inspiration."

blue and white Roman vase The Portland Vase, perhaps from Rome, Italy, about AD 5-25.
Source: © Trustees of the British Museum

Not every object is as monumental as the Portland Vase, and Museum Victoria's collection encompasses many types of materials, including a few that are notoriously difficult to conserve. When asked about her least favourite material, Helen doesn't mince words. "I love plastics, but I hate PVC. It's got what we call 'inherent vice' – it will deteriorate under any circumstances and was never meant to last. Because of the chlorides in the polymer, when it starts to deteriorate it forms hydrochloric acid and basically eats itself to death. PVC objects start to get sticky or tacky, or stuck in a certain shape and they're just a nightmare."

Further reading:

The Art of the Conservator (1992). Andrew Eddy (editor), British Museum Press, London.

Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and Their Search for Adventure (2010). Amanda Adams, Greystone Books, Canada.


Murder in Mesopotamia: Agatha Christie and Archaeology forum at Melbourne Museum on Sunday 9 September

'British Museum buys 3,000-year-old ivory carvings Agatha Christie cleaned with her face cream' (Daily Mail, 8 March 2011)

Australian Historic Shipwreck Preservation Project

Conservation OnLine

About this blog

Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.